Fifth-grader Manuela-Lynn Francis began last year at Barack Obama Elementary as a star student. Her favorite subject was math, she had straight A's, and loved going to school.
"One morning she was throwing up, she was so sick I actually had to convince her she couldn't go in... that's how much she loved school," said Tanya Francis, Manuela-Lynn’s mom.
But just weeks into the school year, Manuela-Lynn's attitude began to change. She was continually getting written up for dress code violations by her math teacher and the school’s principal, who declined multiple interview requests. Tanya Francis estimates Manuela-Lynn was written up over 20 times throughout the year.
Manuela-Lynn was constantly told her shirt length worn over leggings was not long enough. Barack Obama Elementary’s handbook from last school year says “girls may wear leggings, however, they must also wear a shirt/blouse (using the fingertip rule) that is long enough when sitting and standing.” The fingertip rule means the top reaches the end of the student’s fingertips when arms are extended at their side.
Tanya Francis said her daughter is not a provocative dresser. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, she's tall for her age. Her mother said as a preteen, Manuela-Lynn was self-conscious of her growing body, which only worsened as the infractions piled up. "She dresses really conservative, she doesn't even wear a two-piece bathing suit and she doesn't wear skirts 'cause she doesn't like her legs out,” Tanya Francis said. “She's at that age where she thinks, 'I don't like the way [my body] looks.”
After weeks of this treatment, Manuela-Lynn didn't want to go to school anymore. Tanya Francis said she saw her daughter's scholastic enthusiasm transform into frustration and confusion. In October 2017, Manuela-Lynn filed a grievance report against two Barack Obama faculty members to the RPS human resources department. Tanya Francis said the infractions subsided drastically after the school board was notified, only to pick back up again in the spring.
Richmond Public Schools board member Elizabeth Doerr - a self-proclaimed feminist - has been advocating for dress code revisions for the past two years, along with board member Linda Owen. Fueled by student and parent complaints like those of the Francis household, the two women were determined to dismantle gender bias in RPS dress code enforcement.
When Doerr was first elected in 2016, she said nearly two-thirds of the clothing items mentioned in the code were "female specific." It restricted students from wearing halter tops, visible spaghetti straps, and required shorts, dresses, skirts, jumpers and skorts to be "full cut," or no more than two inches above the knee. She said it is no surprise the main perpetrators of code violations are female students. Six of the ten clothing items mentioned in RPS’s 2016-17 district dress code were considered “female specific.”
"When you start to list out different clothing types, you inevitably target a specific type of person," Doerr said. "So what we really wanted to move towards is a more general dress code that set broader guidelines."
The 2017-18 dress code removed specific references to dresses and skirts, but maintained that "clothing must not be more than two inches above the top of the knee when standing." The reference to spaghetti straps was replaced with a requirement that "all shirt straps must be at least three inches wide." As a former teacher herself, Owen said she's not convinced things like strap width and shorts length are "real impediments to teaching and learning,” which to her is the only real reason for a dress code.
"I don't think it's fair to say that a young lady dressed in a certain way is too distracting to young men, they just need to get over being distracted," Owen said.
Doerr and Owen continued to push for a more gender-neutral policy. Any reference to shirt strap width is eliminated in the 2018-19 dress code, which now states students must wear "clothing that includes both a shirt with pants or skirt, or the equivalent (for example dresses, or shorts) and shoes."
Another change this past June was related to shorts length. The old policy said shorts had to be two inches above the knee. Now, the fingertip rule applies. Doerr isn't thrilled about implementing the infamous fingertip rule, which she sees as a “flawed standard.” But, she still sees it as an improvement to the outdated length requirements in previous years.
The same fingertip rule relating to leggings was removed from Barack Obama’s handbook this year. It now says girls may wear leggings but their shirt must cover quote “all appropriate areas.”
The district policy does not mention leggings at all. It does, however, say individual schools can’t enact policies that are more or less restrictive than the district policy. Doerr says that’s meant to standardize enforcement across all Richmond schools:
“Some schools were certainly, had a culture of enforcing the dress code very strict- in a very strict manner, other schools were less stringent, and that’s not fair to our students either,” Doerr said.
Currently - over half of Richmond’s schools - including Barack Obama - have their own handbooks, which differ from school to school. The majority of these handbooks include more restrictive language about the dress code, and don’t reflect the new district policy changes.
RPS is working to maintain a unified handbook of policies, otherwise known as the Student Code of Responsible Ethics. This is where dress code rules are listed. In an email, a spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools said they’re working to eliminate differences in school handbooks as they are made aware of discrepancies. Schools will also be required to submit handbooks to the district office for vetting and standardization over the summer.
School board member Linda Owen says she has only two words for the district’s administration.
“Fix it, it’s those two words,” Owen said. “From me or anybody on the board to anybody on the administration, if policies are not being followed, fix it.”
Meanwhile, Manuela-Lynn is at Binford Middle School this year. She cheerleads and dances, and likes wearing patterns with bright colors and t-shirts with her favorite cartoon characters on the front.
“And like, when I walk across Binford it’s like a whole bunch of people wearing silly things,” Francis said. “So I think, changing schools is actually something that helped me.”
She hasn’t had any problems with the dress code this year, even wearing the same outfits and leggings she had issues with at Barack Obama Elementary. Manuela-Lynn is back to her school-loving self, which her mother credits more to a new school than a new code.